Researchers have given colour-blind monkeys the ability to see in full colour. The work, in Nature, demonstrates the potential for gene therapy to cure adult vision disorders.
Adding new sensory information, such as visual receptors sensitive to different wavelengths of light, to the brain would only be possible in the early years of life, when the brain is at its most plastic. Jay Neitz and colleagues now show that, in the case of distinguishing colours, this may not be true.
The team tested male squirrel monkeys that are known to be red-green colour blind. Using a variety of biophysical and behavioural tests they showed that by introducing genes for photopigments present in some female monkeys, although never in males, into photoreceptor cells in their retina, male monkeys can be given the ability to distinguish between red and green colours, which they previously could not.
By showing that it is possible to add sensory abilities to primates, the finding indicates that the brain may be able to re-wire itself with completely new information, even when the assumed critical period for brain plasticity and development is over. Although it may be some distance off, this could lead to opportunities for adding or restoring functions to the eye.
Jay Neitz (University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA)
Abstract available online.
(C) Nature press release.
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